Original photo by Jamie Marcial/SUPERSTOCK

     America and much of the industrialized world have experienced a surprising trend during the last twenty-five years: a massive interest in ancestry, with millions spending time and money on genealogical research. In the 1970s millions of African-Americans read Alex Haley's Roots to get in touch with their ancestral past. Hundreds of thousands of Americans of Scottish descent attend "Highland Games" every year with their family- reunion atmosphere.

Millions more in both the New and Old Worlds subscribe to genealogical journals, join ancestral societies, and search the Internet for their family histories. In the summer of 2000 a new Internet company, rq.diyidai.com, began in China to help the Chinese research their forbears. Marxism has apparently been unable to stifle the Chinese people's longing to be part of their larger family and ancestral network. Such passion for family trees is unexpected in a post-modernist society that emphasizes technological innovation, "newness," and individual independence.

     Bible believers should welcome this trend for a good reason: family ties help us to know who we are and to become what our covenant God wants us to be. In 1999, Time Magazine (July 5, p. 57) reported a poll of twelve to fourteen-year-olds by the television channel Nickelodeon. The poll asked them to list in order the three most important factors in "fitting in" with peers at school. The answers: clothes, popularity, and good looks. In other words, what's important in life is external and superficial, appearance rather than reality.

     If you don't know who you really are, you may well be like a cork floating on the shifting surf of Myrtle Beach, bobbing up and down on the waves of superficial friends' opinions of you, rather than standing on the solid ground of your identity as a person. To know who you are gives you considerable freedom from the criticism and control of fickle public opinion.

     To know who you are sets you free to be real and not superficial. Ironically, to know who you truly are helps set you free to forget about self and to consider how you can be a blessing to others. It sets you free from trying to dress and talk to please them, thus enabling you to consider how you can be a genuine encouragement in their lives. To know who you are and to become what God wants you to be requires, in most cases, an awareness of your family and its history. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke introduce our Savior, the eternal Son of God in the flesh, by relating His family history with genealogies going back to Abraham and Adam. Family history tells us something about who even the Incarnate Son of God is. If --for our benefit, at least -- a family background and genealogy were important for the Lord Jesus, then how much more do we mere limited mortals need one? So many prayers of the Old Testament are prefaced by invocations such as "O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" and "O God of our Fathers..." Family genealogy is woven into the providential, covenant mercies accompanying the redemption of the pilgrim people of God.

     Indeed, reflecting upon eternity before creation, you could say that this world itself was created for family purposes. Considering passages such as John 17 and Ephesians 2, 3 and 5, we can think of our glorious God as always existing within Himself as something analogous to a family: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Compare Eph. 3: 4-15, "... the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named." The one eternal God has always existed as a trinity of persons, for "God is love" (I John 4: 16), and love requires more than one person for its beneficent interchange of light, life, and joy. Some of the old Church fathers said that the Father so loved His only begotten Son that He chose to create a world to serve as a sort of nursery for a race of people who would be like His Son, and one day be fitted through costly redemption from their sin to become His Son's well-loved bride. Revelation 21: 3 seems to contemplate all of human history as a sort of preparation for "the marriage supper of the Lamb." Absolutely everything in the cosmos is moving in terms of that beautiful, family purpose!

     In the Holy Bible, the basic unit of society is never the individual; it is the family. God did not create us "to go it alone." Psalm 68: 6 states that "God setteth the solitary in families: he bringeth out those which are bound with chains..." Note here that liberation of the individual is in terms of being put into a family. That was true in the Psalmist David's time, and it is still true. Loneliness and individualism destroy personality. Only in the family's varied means of nurture can a person flourish: with fatherly discipline; motherly love; grandparental encouragement and stories in their more relaxed stage of life; challenges, struggles, and encouragement of brothers and sisters; aunts and uncles opening up our world wider than our parents can. Only in the bond of these living ties with their influence constantly radiating upon us can we develop the stable, loving character that God wants us to exhibit for His glory.


     In addition to the family members who are present in our short lifetime, we need to know about our ancestors who have preceded us into eternity. First, we need to know their stories in order to see God's faithful, covenant mercies in the past to our own flesh and blood; to see how He faithfully guided them, perhaps through much tribulation, from Europe or Africa to North America, Australia, or wherever. Knowing our ancestors' stories encourages us because it shows that the Good Shepherd never left or forsook our forebears, and He will never leave or forsake us, their descendants, if we remain in the Faith.

     John Owen, superb Puritan theologian of seventeenth century Oxford, explained that it often takes more than one lifetime -- perhaps more than two generations -- to see how God really does answer parents' and grandparents' prayers for Him to bless their children. In modern terminology, Owen is saying that if we look only at the immediate, nuclear family (this present generation of parents and children), we may feel that God has disappointed our hopes. But faith must take a longer look up and down the family tree! The faithful Lord may bless difficult children long after their praying parents are in glory and no longer on earth to see it. Or, God may skip one profane generation in a godly line, and start the blessing again in the grandchildren and on down for many generations. This long look can keep us from becoming despondent over ungrateful and hard-hearted children in our families, or from being overly ashamed of a bad parent or grandparent.

How Can I Research My Roots?

     Vast resources are available for those who wish to research their own genealogy. People from all backgrounds now use the Internet; a good site is rq.GenWeb. Another excellent starting place is the periodical Family Chronicle. Other good sites are rq.Familysearch.org, rq.Ancestry.com, rq.Familytreemaker.com, rq.Genealogy.com, and rq.Geneologypages.com.

     Those of English descent may find ancestors among the Magna Charta Barons (The National Society Magna Charta Dames, PO Box 4222, Philadelphia, PA 19144) or in The Origins of Some Anglo-Norman Families by Lewis C. Loyd (Genealogical Publishing). The Ancestry of New England Colonists (Genealogical Publishing) is also a fine source. One can also look in Hotten's Shipping Lists of Colonial Emigrants or in earlier volumes of The William and Mary Magazine (republished by Genealogical Publishing). One may also study the wills listed in Canterbury Prerogative Courts.

     Scottish Americans may use James G. Leyburn's Scotch-Irish: A Social History (UNC Press, 1989) or Douglas F. Kelly's Carolina Scots (1739 Publications).

     A starting place for Irish Americans is Your Irish Ancestors: An Illustrated History of Irish Families and Their Origins by J. Anderson Black (Castle Books). Scotch-Irish or Ulster Scots are discussed in the older The Scotch-Irish in America (The Scotch-Irish Society of America) or more recently, three volumes by Billy Kennedy on The Scotch-Irish in the Carolinas, Shenandoah, and the hills of Tennessee; published by Ambassador/Emerald Publishing.

     African Americans may find useful the multi-volume Slave Narratives (published by the US Government), containing interviews with some 2,300 former slaves conducted during the New Deal of the 1930s.

     The five volumes of South Carolina Genealogies cover scores of families (The Reprint Company). The French Huguenot Society in Charleston, South Carolina, has massive resources. There are also excellent genealogical societies, such as South Carolina Genealogical Society, which published a surname index in 1981 (A Press). Most states and many counties have excellent genealogical repositories.

     Secondly, we need a knowledge of our ancestors' lives, because it realistically warns us and challenges us. Merely looking at a list (or the actual tombstones) of the long generations before us teaches us that death is coming and that we need to be ready for the great change. This is no small benefit in a culture such as modern, prosperous America, so given over to temporary material pursuits, 'to eating, drinking and making merry' as though it will always be like this for us, with no accounting soon enough to come for us all. If you have a family tree available, study it to see which of your ancestors lived to be the oldest. Did someone among your people live to be ninety or one hundred? Even if we should make it to ninety, we must still leave here and give an account of our relatively short earthly life to the eternal One.

     Years ago, with my wife's kindly agreement, I took all of our children when they were very young and had them stand behind the tombstones of the ancestors for whom they were named, so we could take a picture of them there. (With the youngest, who has four Christian names, I believe it involved three different tombstones in two different graveyards!) When another of our children was baptized, an elderly cousin brought an interesting present to the baptismal celebration. It was a standing picture frame with two panels. One of them showed the tombstone of our child's emigrant Scottish ancestor for whom he was named, and the other panel showed the memorial window in the church for the old patriarch .

     Is it grim to remind our children that, as Scottish theologian, Thomas Boston, said: "the grave is the narrow house appointed for all living"? Far from it! Realism is always healthy, and Christ's victory over death, as well as the resurrection power believers already share in and with Him is a bright and shining goal to put before our little ones. People who refuse to face reality and thus are unable to help their children deal with the big questions that eventually impose themselves upon all of Adam's offspring are the ones to be pitied.

     Our ancestors' stories can benefit us in yet another way. Knowing the mistakes they made, sins they committed, and the bad consequences of wrong choices, warns you (who share their genetic code) not to be presumptuous yourself. From the British Isles we have inherited the old saying, "experience teaches a dear [expensive, costly] school." Learning from our ancestors' mistakes and correcting our lives in light of them to avoid our own crashes is a great deal cheaper in terms of human suffering and grief.

     By the way, God will make up to orphans and displaced persons, who through no fault of their own, can never know their wider kin and ancestral experiences. He will do it, not least, through the Church, which - as Saint Augustine and John Calvin remind us - is 'the Mother of the Faithful.' An Old Testament equivalent would be two of Christ's own ancestors, Rahab, the Canaanite harlot, and Ruth, the impoverished widow from Moab. These women of faith lost their ancestral culture. But the Lord made them infinitely the gainers, as He built them new "houses in Israel" and made them remote grandmothers of the Messiah. God is still forming new ancestral lines for His glory. If you do not come from one, then start one! One day your descendants will benefit from knowing both your strengths and weaknesses.

     An illustration of benefiting from "the dear school" of familial experience comes to mind from my father's mother's family. My great-great grandfather was put out of the Presbyterian Church in 1842 (along with his "unfavorite" brother-in-law) because they cursed each other at a squirrel hunt and refused to repent and make up. (The session minutes of the old church in North Carolina actually lists the very names they called each other. Years ago when I read the abusive epithets they leveled at each other, I instinctively felt, "'Yes, these men belong to our family!") Actually, they were disciplined, not for cursing, but for refusing to repent and be reconciled.

     It is certain that my Christlike great-grandfather took to heart the lesson that his somewhat haughty father apparently refused to learn. He daily practiced a manly self-control and notable kindliness all his life. Recently, a newspaper article devoted to Confederate soldiers buried in his area referred to his and his wife's widely known exemplary qualities. Thus, the fragrance of a good name is still well known nearly one hundred years after his death in 1904. And this from a man whose father, a fairly prominent antebellum figure, felt so much his own importance that he was all too ready to be disdainful of those who crossed him!


     For these good reasons, we need to abide in the fellowship of our living relatives and also seek to pass down the same faith, plead the same promises, and avoid some of the mistakes of our ancestors who have gone on before us. The whole of deracinated Western culture desperately needs a fresh and vital emphasis on the importance of family in the covenant mercies of God.

 A recent article in Critique reminds us of the pressing need for solid family relationship in our nearly rootless, individualistic, and sad society. In "Youth Culture and Growing Up, Part Two" Mardi Keyes maintains:

    Many kids start the day having breakfast alone or with younger siblings they are responsible for and then come home to an empty house after school. It is no accident that kids get into the most trouble between 3 and 6 p.m., when they are alone at home (not late at night, when youth curfews kick in!)
    When parents get home, they are too stressed, exhausted and distracted by their own problems to give their kids much attention. Also, they tend to believe that their children (especially teenagers) would rather be left alone.
    The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development found: 'Young adolescents do not want to be left to their own devices. In national surveys and focus groups, America's youth have given voice to serious longing. They want more regular contact with adults who care about and respect them.'
    As Hines writes: 'There is evidence that if parents do take a lively, though not defensive, interest in their children's lives, their teens are less likely to commit crimes, use drugs, or become pregnant prematurely. For example, teenagers who have dinner with their families most nights are far less likely to get into trouble than those who do not' (pp.8-9).

     What a grand time is this new millennium for believers joyfully to take part in the family circle here below and thankfully to remember the loved ones above! Only eternity will tell what this emphasis will accomplish in the character development and personal security of the generation to come.

"For the joy of human love, Brother, sister, parent, child, Friends on earth and friends above, For all gentle thoughts and mild, Lord of all, to Thee we raise This our hymn of grateful praise." (by E. J.. Hopkins)

Dr. Douglas Kelly is the J. Richard Jordan Professor of Systematic Theology at RTS/Charlotte. A prolific writer, he is the author of several books, including If God Already Knows, Why Pray? and most recently Creation and Change: Genesis 1.1-2.4 in the Light of Changing Scientific Paradigms. He is also co-editor of a revised edition of Calvin's Old Testament Commentaries and a twenty-volume dogmatics series. In addition to his scholarly pursuits, he has been involved in the life of the church at all levels, preaching, teaching, and serving on committees.


Reformed Quarterly, Volume 20, Number 1
© 2001 Reformed Theological Seminary
Articles may not be reprinted without permission.


Last updated 5-14-2001.